As a popular tenured professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Jennifer Chatman was used to teaching at the highest level. But as she was in her 40s and gaining even more expertise, she noticed something strange: Her class evaluations started to get worse.
“My teaching got even better, but students were harder on me,” she says. What’s more, when she spoke to her middle-aged female colleagues, she found that they experienced similar decline, while the men around them were not.
Chatman won Haas’ top prize for teaching excellence and now heads the Berkeley Haas faculty as Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, but her latest research provides empirical support for her experience: One analysis found that evaluations of male professors remain consistent over time, while women experienced a rapid decline from their initial peak in their 30s, reaching a low around age 47.
The analysis is part of a new research paper published today in the journal Organizational behavior and human decision-making processes and co-authored with Professor Laura Kray and others. The overall conclusion: Both men and women are perceived as more capable or effective as they age, but only women are perceived as less warm as they age, making them judged more harshly.
Chatman notes that at a time when women are just beginning to approach equality in business schools and still make up just 6.4% of the CEOs of the S&P 500, the implications could be deadly for career ambition. “Middle age is a make or break time, when people are cared for and qualified for the top positions,” said Chatman, the Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management and co-director of the Berkeley Culture Center. “We need to look beyond the pipeline to see what’s really happening in terms of the experiences women have throughout their careers.”
Perceptions of ‘warmth’ and ‘agency’ are two fundamental measures that social science researchers have shown are critical to assessing the people around us. “The first thing we notice about someone is whether they are hot or cold,” explains Kray, the Ned and Carol Spieker Chair in Leadership and faculty director of Berkeley Haas’ Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership. “It tells you something about whether they have good or bad intentions for you. ‘Agency’ addresses the question of how much we believe they are capable of realizing those intentions.”
Research in the past has found that, in general, women are stereotyped as warmer than men, while men are seen as having more freedom of choice – or as more capable and assertive. This is a legacy of historical divisions in which women were responsible for raising the children while men hunted or worked. “The stereotypes have outlived their usefulness,” Chatman said, adding that friction can arise when women go against those stereotypes by achieving a position of greater agency at work.
Studies have also shown that the perception of both warmth and freedom of choice generally increases with age. However, there are no scientists who have previously looked at both gender and age to show how perceptions of men and women may differ. In a series of studies, Chatman and Kray set out to do just that, along with Haas doctoral researcher Sonya Mishra; Haas graduate Daron Sharps, Ph.D., now on Pinterest; and Professor Michael North of New York University.
‘Steve’ vs ‘Sue’
In a first study, the researchers presented participants with a photo of a hypothetical supervisor at a technology company — either a man, “Steve Wilson,” or a woman, “Sue Miller.” They were then given identical information about Steve’s or Sue’s career and were asked to rate them on adjectives such as “powerful” or “gentle” in middle age compared to when they were younger.
True to previous studies, participants rated both individuals higher on agency characteristics as they grew older. But even with identical descriptions and so little information to rate, the participants rated Sue lower on characteristics related to heat as she got older, while Steve’s ratings didn’t change. “It’s just beautiful,” Chatman says. “These stereotypes are so persistent and entrenched that they come out even when absolutely identical information is given about a man and a woman.”
In a second study, the researchers asked nearly 500 professionals in executive leadership classes to ask real-life colleagues to rate them on traits such as assertiveness and friendliness. Interestingly, women received the same ratings for warmth regardless of age; however, middle-aged men in the class were rated higher for warmth than younger men.
“Under these conditions, women were not perceived as less warm in an absolute sense, but they are still perceived as less warm compared to men,” says Kray. “So when they’re considered next to men in that age group, they could be at a disadvantage.”
Evaluations of university professors
In the latest study, Chatman and Kray went back to the original source of the research to analyze a large dataset of college professor evaluations, allowing them to literally compare a person’s performance to their younger selves to see how it changed with age. the age. (The researchers did their best to control for factors such as whether professors had children or took on additional non-teaching work as they rose through the ranks.)
Sure enough, they found that male professors’ evaluations remained consistent over time. Meanwhile, ratings for female professors declined rapidly from their initial peak in their 30s, reaching a low around age 47. Then they rose steadily again, reaching parity with men by their early 60s. “At that point, there are different stereotypes of women, and they may benefit from being seen as more grandmothers,” Kray says.
This is an especially dramatic finding because teaching is a skill that should improve with age and experience, Chatman notes. “That was true for men, but for women, they were rated as worse teachers compared to their own past performance, a finding that strongly carries stereotypes rather than actual performance,” Chatman says.
To delve deeper into the reasons behind the decline, the researchers also analyzed students’ actual comments using linguistic software that identified hundreds of adjectives. They found that words like “caring,” “nice,” and “helpful” decreased for women, along with their scores. “When women got their lowest educational scores, there was an increase in complaints about their personality,” Kray says.
All of these results confirm the researchers’ suspicions that even as women gain more power and competence as they gain experience, they are accused of not conforming to stereotypical prescriptions for “niceness.”
“There seems to be something about the nature of career advancement that seems to lead people to see women as less warm and therefore less likable as their agency increases,” Chatman says. In part, these findings provide validation to women, explaining why they may experience backlash and stagnation in middle age just as their careers are booming.
Consciousness is essential
However, the researchers caution not to dispel the idea that women should strive to be warmer or less capable — a struggle every woman who has experienced an encounter with overconfident men already knows. “I’d hate to get the message out that women need to be more careful about how they present themselves,” Chatman says, “because these findings already point to the fact that women have a narrower band of acceptable behavior.”
Instead, the researchers hope the results can help raise awareness that bias may affect how women are considered for promotions, as opposed to how men are considered. “We need to create systems and standardization for how we discuss and evaluate candidates,” Kray says, “and either exclude feedback on personality, or make sure it’s considered equally for men.”
As women rise through the ranks, she adds, their own first-hand knowledge of these intractable stereotypes can help them educate the men around them to make decisions based on merit and ability, rather than stereotypes about perceived heat. “When women occupy a position of evaluating others,” Kray says, “they shouldn’t be afraid to talk about double standards and be change agents on committees charged with evaluating the work of others.”
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Jennifer A. Chatman et al, Agentic but not warm: Interactions between age and gender and the consequences of stereotyped incongruity perceptions for middle-aged professional women, Organizational behavior and human decision-making processes (2022). DOI: 10.116/j.obhdp.2022.104190
Quote: Study: Stereotypes of middle-aged women as less ‘nice’ may hold them back at work (2022, Oct. 20) retrieved Oct. 20, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-10-stereotypes-middle- aged-women-cute.html
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